Over the last quarter-century, smokers have become pariahs.
Once they could smoke at their desks, anywhere in restaurants, in stores. Nowadays, smokers may not light up in the workplace, in many public places and even many businesses that have declared themselves smoke-free.
That’s not a bad trend.
As a result, non-smokers are protected from toxic secondhand smoke, and smokers who must huddle outside in blizzard conditions to light up are given more incentive to quit the habit.
But the crusade to get smokers to quit — and, by extension, reduce health-care costs — has taken a new, repressive turn, one that may keep some attorneys busy.
Both Kalamazoo Valley Community College and a health benefits administration company in Okemos have tied employment strings to whether a worker smokes or not.
As of Jan. 1, KVCC will no longer hire tobacco users for full-time jobs. Those smokers who already hold full-time jobs at KVCC are exempt from the new policy.
Weyco Inc., a health benefits administrator in Okemos, has adopted an even more draconian policy: Those who smoke will get fired — and not just those who smoke at work. Those who smoke at home, on their own time, can expect dismissal. Employees are required to take a screening text to determine whether they are using tobacco.
One smoking employee quit over the policy; four others were fired for refusing to take the smoking test.
The argument is that health-care costs for tobacco-related illnesses are more than $75 billion a year nationally. Add to that the $80 billion in lost productivity caused by smoking, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and it’s not hard to see why employers would rather have a non-smoking workforce.
Health care insurers would much rather cover a group of employees who don’t smoke than smokers who eventually require more health care.
And while federal and state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against people because of race, religion, gender and even weight, no one sees smoking as a civil right, although it is perfectly legal.
We could understand measures to not hire, not promote or to fire employees if they were engaged in illegal acts, such as taking drugs; or if legal acts, such as drinking alcohol, were impairing employees’ ability to do their jobs.
But if employees are not smoking in the workplace and smoking is not impairing their performance, employers shouldn’t make smoking a barrier to employment.
That’s not to say that employers shouldn’t take other steps to encourage employees to kick the habit. And smoking cessation classes should be available to workers to help them.
Perhaps smokers should be asked by their employers to pay a higher share of their health insurance premiums.
But as long as we’re focusing on behavior that leads to costly health problems, fast-food aficionados, barflies and couch potatoes should be asked to pony up more as well.